Editor's note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the military family interviewed.
When Nicole and her husband, a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, moved with their two young sons to Camp Pendleton, Calif., in the summer of 2013, they were ecstatic.
“We were returning to our first duty station, so to be able to come back here was almost like coming home,” Nicole remembers. “We’d never lived on base before. We only decided to do so because we wouldn't to be able to afford much off base.”
Moving into a comfy, two-story duplex home, close to where her husband worked, with neighbors who understood their lifestyle, seemed like a dream. But that dream felt more like a nightmare just five months later, when the family received their first unexplainably high electric bill.
In 2013, the Marine Corps implemented the Resident Energy Conservation Program (RECP) to reduce energy waste among military families living on base. Before then, these same families never saw a utility bill, as it was included in their monthly rent—the cost depending on the service member’s rank.
RECP was imagined as a way to “reward those who conserve energy and educate energy abusers.” Rather than billing each home for their electricity, similar-sized homes were grouped together and had their usage averaged into what was considered a “baseline.”
That baseline, including a 10 percent “buffer,” was meant to give families a way to save on electricity. Anything below the buffer was free, while anything that went over it was charged to the family.
Many families had concerns about the energy conservation program. Base homes weren’t built to be monitored independently or to conserve energy. The duplexes and quadplexes typically shared electrical wiring, making it difficult to tell who was using what.
Not only were the homes ill-equipped to begin such a program, but grouping houses together didn’t account for family size. While a family of five may live in one side of a duplex, a married couple with no kids may live in the other. Energy consumption between homes varied, making an averaging system illogical.
Nicole, who stayed at home with her children, never felt their electricity usage was wasteful. Laundry, dishes, television, the microwave and occasional time on the computer constituted their daily routine. It was, by all regards, normal.
Five months after moving in, her family received their first bill. Before, they’d only received “mock bills” meant to prepare families for eventual real billing. Nicole was surprised that even with no air conditioning, her family had managed to surpass the buffer and owed money for overages.
She says she didn’t dispute the charge at first. She’d never had to pay an electricity bill on base before so she figured it was normal. That first bill they paid was $64. Although not an outrageous amount of money, it was still difficult to scrape together.
As months passed, their energy costs kept climbing. By the end of the year, they were averaging payments of $200 or more per month. Things weren’t adding up.
To make ends meet, Nicole began cutting back on groceries and extra expenses, eventually turning to credit cards and getting into debt. In October, a sudden jump in charges made things even harder—the bill said they owed a whopping $372.
“Nothing changed [in our energy usage],” Nicole says. “Except that we were trying harder and harder to make sure doors were closed, lights were off and electrical items were unplugged. It never helped, though.”
Her husband was worried they wouldn’t be able to make their payment. Angry, Nicole told him they weren't going to pay the bill because she knew there was absolutely no way they used that much electricity.
Thinking she would have to fight over the erroneous charges, Nicole admits she waited for the energy company, YES Energy, to contact her.
“Honestly, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, so I just stopped paying.”
A month later, to Nicole’s surprise, an eviction notice was posted on her garage by Lincoln Military Housing, the housing management firm used by Camp Pendleton and other military bases, stating the family had violated their rental agreement by not paying their energy bill.
The letter warned that if the bill wasn’t paid within three days, they would be evicted.
The notice, which arrived on the evening before Thanksgiving, made the holiday stressful. With the housing office closed, there was no one they could call until the following Monday, well after the three-day warning period.
That Monday, before Nicole even had a chance to contact them, her husband called. His command had been notified of their failure to pay their energy bill. Now he was forced to disclose the matter to his superiors. It was humiliating.
Ready to do anything she could to fix the problem, Nicole called the housing office and spoke to a representative about her concerns. She said she felt like the woman on the other end of the line brushed her off.
“She didn’t even ask for my name or address, even with an eviction notice. It was unreal.”
Two weeks passed and Nicole heard nothing. A friend encouraged her to call housing management again and ask for an inspection that might show why their electricity bill had increased so dramatically. Before she had a chance to call, she says she found another eviction notice, this time demanding a payment of $607—or be evicted. She went to the housing office in person, but no one seemed to take her seriously. Reps took her name and address and promised a follow-up call within 24 hours. A week has passed since that day, and still, no follow-up call has come.
Nicole has kept all of the energy bills, so she studied them again and found something strange.
“Our monthly usage averaged around 500 kilowatts per month the first year. In January, it suddenly jumped to 984 kilowatts, and by May, it was over 1,000. Our October bill said we used 1,501 kilowatts. We don’t have any new electronics, no lights hanging, nothing. It makes no sense.”
In a Facebook group for military spouses on the base, other families started sharing similar, frustrating experiences. Some had been served eviction notices too, while others were fighting bills that had mysteriously gone up when they were out of town. A few even shared that when they were finally able to get maintenance to inspect their residence, they found their homes were cross-wired to their neighbors'—some were even connected to the street lights. For months, they claim, they’ve been paying for electricity charges that weren’t theirs.
As of today, Nicole still has not heard from housing management, but the two eviction notices are still lingering.
“We will pay our bills,” she says. “But I need them to show me how we’ve used this much. Until they do, I’m going to fight this.”